Concrete decision: Stinson Vineyards ferments in an egg that’s hard to beat

Visitors can’t keep their eyes—or their hands—off the ovoid fermentation tanks at Stinson Vineyards. Photo: John Robinson Visitors can’t keep their eyes—or their hands—off the ovoid fermentation tanks at Stinson Vineyards. Photo: John Robinson

I first encountered an ovoid concrete fermentation vessel at Austria’s innovative biodynamic winery Meinklang in 2004. Actually, there were a few of them, all lined up and looking like 1950s science-fiction rocket ships, held upright by fin-shaped buttresses. A startling departure from the oak barrels and stainless-steel vats I was accustomed to seeing, the eggs, as they are commonly known, filled me with wonder. In fact, they were so strangely attractive that my fellow travelers and I soon found ourselves running our hands over the smooth-but-textured surface of one, and smiling with delight.

I did the very same thing during a recent trip to Crozet’s Stinson Vineyards, one of just a few Virginia wineries using concrete eggs. I’m not an oddball—winemaker Rachel Stinson Vrooman assured me that most visitors feel compelled to rub them. “And they take many pictures, as if it were a rock star,” she says.

The making and storage of wine in rounded, earthenware containers called amphorae dates back to the Neolithic period, and was practiced by ancient civilizations including the Egyptians, Romans, and Greeks. Renowned French winemaker Michel Chapoutier was inspired by this history when he designed the first contemporary concrete egg, which was manufactured by Nomblot in 2002. When Stinson opened eight years later, it bought its eggs from Nomblot. Small, minimalist, and modern, the winery’s style is complemented by the concrete vessels.

Concrete egg fermenters have many things to recommend them. The thick, dense walls insulate the fermenting wine and keep the temperature stable. As the yeast goes to work it gives off heat, creating convection currents that circulate warmer wine at the bottom to replace cooler wine at the top. This movement allows complex flavors to develop through continuous contact with the lees (yeast sediments) in an automatic batonnage (stirring the lees to lend a creamy texture). Tiny, air-filled pores on the interior walls oxygenate the circulating liquid, allowing redox to occur—essentially, the oxygen regulates the level of naturally occurring sulfur compounds.

In sauvignon blanc, the only wine Stinson makes with the eggs, sulfur can produce flavors of passion fruit, citrus, smoke, and flint. But if the oxygen weren’t present to keep the sulfur in check, the wine would smell skunky. I’m not making this up! The sulfur compound thiol is what makes a skunk’s spray so vile, but it also gives garlic its pleasant zip.

Okay, the chemistry lesson is over—let’s talk about wine, in particular Stinson’s excellent sauvignon blanc. When it comes out of the eggs it is blended with the same wine that has been fermented in stainless steel, which, unlike concrete, preserves fruit flavors. The finished product delivers good minerality, complexity, body, and texture. This texture, a creaminess on the palate, I definitely noticed when tasting the wine. I also tasted notes of peach and citrus.

If making the wine this way sounds labor-intensive, well, that’s because it is. But as the cool wine flowed across my tongue, filling my mouth with complex, refreshing flavors, it made me smile—just like a concrete egg itself.

Stinson Vineyards, 4744 Sugar Hollow Rd., Crozet, 823-7300, stinsonvineyards.com